BOOK REVIEW / A morning smelling of the bone yards: 'Ruined Pages: Selected Poems' - Padraic Fiacc: Blackstaff, 7.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Considerable publicity surrounded Padraic Fiacc's recent 70th birthday. Much of it dwelt on the poet's isolation, compounded of private misfortune and a despair both political and religious. Even so, as cosmopolitan a writer as Paul Muldoon found in Fiacc's career an exemplary instance of part of what it means to be a poet. The poete maudit is, though, a rather familiar figure, and Fiacc's real claim on our attention must reside in his work

Born in Belfast, Fiacc (Patrick Joseph O'Connor) was raised in New York, where 'materialism pushed nature itself out the door, so that it came in the window from the fire escape in the guise of a sex fiend . . . The only escape seemed the sea, the stars'. The oppressive menace of his childhood has haunted his poetry throughout his career. 'My fellow poets call my poems cryptic, crude, dis / -tasteful . . .' he writes in 'Glass Grass'. The awkward line-break stresses the distance at which he stands from what he sees as the poetry world, although in the same poem he gives a reading, clutching his own work 'like clutching at / Strands of grass to hold you up from falling'. Poetry is a survival mechanism for one 'on the same anti / -depressant as the backstreet kids and their young mothers'.

The flatness of Fiacc's language in 'Glass Grass' authenticates the poem, preventing it from striking a rhetorical stance. His best work, though, has been provoked by the Troubles. Writing about others, Fiacc shows a compassion which transcends the sectarian and is often moving in expression. In 'Tears', he begins by describing how 'After the bombing the British soldier / Looks up into the barbwired Irish / Twilight his sleeve is soaked / With the colour of tea', evoking an impossibly cosy social rite. In 'Introit', Fiacc begins like a nature poet, but by the end of the poem, after an explosion, 'old ladies and / Soldiers shake like flowers / Crying 'Christ]' and 'Fuck]' '. The absence of comment demands that we respond.

The darkly ambiguous 'Credo Credo' ends by invoking the 'Mother with her ugly Jewish child' against the soldiers, a figure 'Who bleeds with the people, she'll win / because she loses all with the people, / Has lost every war for centuries with us.' At first this reads like a fine sectarian anthem, but among Fiacc's other poems it stands as one point of view among many. The sense that any statement is inadequate among encircling darkness is perhaps most clearly conveyed in the most lyrically persuasive poem here, 'First Movement':

'Low clouds, yellow in a mist wind,

Sift on far-off Ards

drift hazily . . .

I was born on such a morning

Smelling of the Bone Yards

The smoking chimneys over the slate roof tops

The wayward storm birds

And to the east where morning is, the sea

And to the west where evening is, the sea

Threatening with danger

And it would always darken suddenly.'